In an election flush with conspiracy theories, here's one that's real: Both major party nominees, as well as the journalists who cover the election and moderate the debates, are actively conspiring to avoid talking about the fact that the United States is waging war in at least five countries simultaneously: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia.
In the first two presidential debates, our involvement in the Syrian civil war was briefly discussed, as was ISIS in vague terms, and the Iran nuclear deal, and Russia's mischief-making in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and Libya, though mostly in the past tense, focused on our 2011 intervention to depose Moammar Gadhafi and the subsequent attack on American government facilities in Benghazi a year later.
But our role in "advising" the Iraqi army "a few miles behind the front lines" as it works to take back territory from ISIS? Our "secret war" against Shabab militants in Somalia? Our support for Saudi Arabia's bloody assault on Houthi rebels in Yemen? Our air strikes pounding positions in and around the city of Sirte on the Libyan coast?
Nada. Zip. Nothing.
And everyone involved has powerful reasons to encourage this conspiracy of silence — in tonight's final presidential debate, and beyond.
Republicans have an incentive to avoid a conversation about our multiple wars because the GOP finds it more politically advantageous to portray Barack Obama as a feckless commander in chief who has made the country less safe through grandiloquent displays of spinelessness. To put our wars on the table for discussion and debate would expose the actual truth, which is that Obama has very much governed as a hawk (albeit one who, unlike Republicans, prefers not to brag about it).
Democrats, on the other hand, have several reasons of their own to avoid a conversation about our multiple wars. First, because they quite understandably fear that the American people might object if they realized the Democratic administration was meddling militarily in so many places. Second, because the results of and strategic goals at stake in these interventions are so consistently muddled. Third, because it would reveal that Democrats are closely following the foreign policy vision of their nemesis George W. Bush.
Members of Congress, meanwhile, prefer to avoid making a fuss about our extensive military adventures — all of which are apparently covered by the comically broad Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists passed just after the 9/11 attacks — because their silence shields them from having to take partial responsibility for the consequences of the president's actions. Better to shirk Congress' constitutional obligations than risk having to take part of the blame if something goes wrong.
And finally and most troublingly, the press has an incentive to avoid a discussion of our actions in places like Somalia and Yemen because the details are extraordinarily complicated — and journalists have no faith in their own ability to explain the necessary historical and geopolitical background to each conflict in a way that will keep an audience engaged, or faith in the American people to process and evaluate that information in a responsible way.
Are they wrong? This is, after all, an election that's rarely risen above the level of hyperbolic sloganeering, shrill denunciation, and outright sleaze-mongering. Donald "Disaster!" Trump certainly deserves a lion's share of the blame for this. But members of the ratings-hungry and click-greedy press are far from innocent. It's supposed to be their job to keep the election from becoming a circus and to ensure that the conversation remains focused on reality, even when that reality is maddeningly complex.
In failing to do so — in allowing Trump to get away with ignorant ranting, and Hillary Clinton to avoid having to defend or criticize President Obama's profligate deployment of military force across wide swaths of the globe — the press actively contributes to making our politics stupider. Instead of enlightening members of the general public, it entertains them. And so the wars drag on and multiply, fought by an all-volunteer army thousands of miles away, barely touching the lives and thoughts of the vast majority of voters.
In a political season in which the media has come in for unprecedented hostility and abuse, this is its greatest, and least appreciated, shortcoming: When everybody else decided it was a good idea to forestall a public debate about enormously important and complicated policy questions, the press decided to go along and let it happen.